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With widely varying results, state legislatures debate the merits of public access to concealed weapons permits From the Spring 2004…

With widely varying results, state legislatures debate the merits of public access to concealed weapons permits

From the Spring 2004 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 27.

By Grant Penrod

I magine this scenario: An argument erupts between two people in a crowded subway station during the evening rush hour. Commuters gather to see what the disruption is, when one of the participants unexpectedly pulls out a concealed weapon and shoots at the other, firing bullets into the crowd.

Did the shooter have a permit to carry the concealed gun? Did he have a history of reckless or violent behavior?

According to the National Rifle Association and some state legislatures, you should not be able to find out.

There are laws in 46 states allowing the carrying of concealed weapons, usually by permit. Requirements for obtaining a permit — age limits, fees, background checks, training courses and renewal periods — vary widely by state, as do laws governing where concealed weapons may be carried and the types of weapons that can be concealed.

But what also varies is the outcome of a debate, raging in state legislatures and communities throughout the nation, over whether the names of permit holders and permit applicants should be available to the public under state open records laws.

“There is a real interest in who gets a permit and who gets to ‘pack heat,’ ” said Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a journalism organization dedicated to improving the quality of investigative reporting.

According to Houston, journalists need access to permit records to effectively report on the use of concealed weapons by convicted felons and domestic abusers, as well as the day-to-day incidents that involve guns. The records also allow reporters to look into how the permitting process is being implemented by officials. Keeping those records secret, Houston said, “doesn’t make any sense . . . especially when you’re dealing with dangerous weapons.”

In recent months, three states — Wisconsin, Missouri and Ohio — have addressed the question of public access to concealed weapons records, and all three have come up with different answers.

Openness Prevails in Wisconsin

When the Wisconsin legislature began reviewing a bill in October 2003 to repeal the state’s 130-year-old ban on concealed weapons, it included a provision that kept the names of those who applied for concealed weapons permits secret under the state Open Records Law.

“I think that’s one of the beauties of this bill,” Rep. Scott Gunderson (R-Waterford), the bill’s chief sponsor in the State Assembly, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “People aren’t going to know who’s carrying.”

Proponents of keeping the information secret argued that when criminals do not know who might be armed, it deters crime. They also argued that making such information public would invade gun owners’ privacy and give burglars a list of “unprotected” targets.

Nonetheless, 65 of 72 state sheriffs opposed the legislation, which overwhelmingly passed the Assembly, 64-35, and the Senate, 24-8. On Nov. 18, Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle vetoed the bill.

“Under this bill, hunting licenses would still be considered open records in Wisconsin, yet permits allowing people to carry concealed weapons into Little League games would be kept secret,” Doyle said in a statement.

The legislature failed to override the veto, which requires that two-thirds of both houses of the legislature approve the bill. The override passed in the Senate with 23 votes — one to spare — but fell one vote shy of the 66 needed to pass the Assembly.

Randy Ratke of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association said the bill’s secrecy provision likely contributed to the defeat.

“The bill probably would have had a better chance to become law had the provisions not been there,” Ratke said. “Every time you nick the Open Records Law you move toward a closed society.”

Secrecy Results in Missouri

An attempt to block a similar law in Missouri was not so successful. On Sept. 11, 2003, the state legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of a conceal-and-carry secrecy bill.

The new law went into effect Oct. 11, and made it a misdemeanor crime for a law enforcement official to disclose the name of a concealed weapons permit holder. A separate application needed to purchase a gun in Missouri has been, and still is, an open record.

“There is no need for the public to know who has a permit,” National Rifle Association spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs told The Associated Press on Oct. 6, noting that the NRA supports such secrecy provisions in all concealed weapons laws. “Research has shown that the principle reason right-to-carry laws deter crime is that criminals do not know who is armed.”

Luis Tolley, director of state legislative affairs for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a national gun control organization, said the NRA has another motivation.

“The reason that the NRA is pushing for closed records is that they want to prevent reporters from telling people when people with concealed weapons commit a crime,” Tolley said.

Open permit records are “one of the most powerful tools we have” to show the dangers of concealed weapons, he added. “The secrecy clauses take these stories away.”

In March, the Missouri Senate rejected an amendment to the concealed weapons law that would have made the records public.

An Ohio Compromise Makes No One Happy

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Bob Taft threatened to veto the legislature’s concealed weapons bill over a provision that made the names of permit holders secret. Rather than risk the veto, the legislature drafted a compromise that would allow journalists — but not the general public — access to the records. The bill passed in early January and was signed by Taft. The law went into effect April 8.

“While I would have preferred that the public have full access to the information, I believe that this is a reasonable compromise that will hold the permit system accountable for compliance with the law,” Taft said in a statement.

Others were not as satisfied with the compromise.

“When we lobby for access, we lobby for public access,” said Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association.

“We don’t believe the press should have rights to information the general public is denied,” Doug Clifton, editor of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, wrote in a Jan. 15 editorial. Clifton added that the newspaper intended to obtain the records and publish them.

“If the records were open to public scrutiny there would be no need to publish them,” Clifton wrote. “But as long as the legislature creates this dual citizenship, I think we have an obligation to share the information.”

According to a Jan. 11 story in The Coshocton Tribune, Rep. Jim Aslanides (R-Coshocton), the bill’s sponsor, warned reporters that if they abuse their right of access to the information, he will seek to have the records closed to everyone.

From December 1998 to July 2003, more than 1,200 Ohio residents with a criminal background were illegally allowed to purchase a gun because of lax record-keeping, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Justice. The Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based gun control research and advocacy group, found similar results involving concealed weapons permits in Florida and Texas. Legislators in Florida and South Carolina are currently debating public access to concealed weapons permits.

“Government operates best when the light of public scrutiny is shined on it,” Ohio Sen. Marc Dann (D-Liberty) told the Zanesville Times Recorder. “I don’t think we need to worry about journalists doing their jobs.”